Since 1969, “Sesame Street” has been introducing small children to letters and numbers by using clever skits and songs performed by Muppets and celebrities. Patrick Stewart, for instance, reworked Hamlet’s soliloquy as an ode to the letter B (“B or not a B, that is the question”). Now a report by two economists, Melissa Kearney of the University of Maryland and Phillip Levine of Wellesley College, has tracked the first generation of watchers (who were under six in 1969). It reveals that children who had access to “Sesame Street” ended up better prepared for school and were 14% less likely to fall behind in class.
The show’s effects are not unlike those of Head Start, a federal scheme that provides poor families with services that include school-based early education. But it costs a fraction as much, says Ms Kearney. “Sesame Street” is not a replacement for early education, which most studies agree is vital; but it is certainly a very affordable supplement. “In essence,” she says, thinking of massive open online courses, “Sesame Street was the first MOOC.”
Stories are alive. The ones that last, Gaiman said, outcompete other stories by changing over time. They make it from medium to medium—from oral to written to film and beyond. They lose uninteresting elements but hold on to the most compelling bits or even add some. The most popular version of the Cinderella story (which may have originated long ago in China) has kept the gloriously unlikely glass slipper introduced by a careless French telling.
For all avid readers who have been self-medicating with great books their entire lives, it comes as no surprise that reading books can be good for your mental health and your relationships with others, but exactly why and how is now becoming clearer, thanks to new research on reading’s effects on the brain. Since the discovery, in the mid-nineties, of “mirror neurons”—neurons that fire in our brains both when we perform an action ourselves and when we see an action performed by someone else—the neuroscience of empathy has become clearer. A 2011 study published in the Annual Review of Psychology, based on analysis of fMRI brain scans of participants, showed that, when people read about an experience, they display stimulation within the same neurological regions as when they go through that experience themselves. We draw on the same brain networks when we’re reading stories and when we’re trying to guess at another person’s feelings.
How did “rabbit hole,” which started its figurative life as a conduit to a fantastical land, evolve into a metaphor for extreme distraction? One obvious culprit is the Internet, which has altered to an indescribable degree the ways that we distract ourselves. Twenty years ago, you could browse for hours in a library or museum, spend Saturday night at the movies and Sunday at the mall, kill an afternoon at the local video arcade or an evening at its X-rated analogue—but you couldn’t do those things every day, let alone all day and night. Moreover, content-wise, you couldn’t leapfrog very far or very fast from wherever you started, and there was a limit to the depth and nichiness of what you were likely to find; back then, we had not yet paved the road between, say, Dorothy Hamill and a comprehensive list of Beaux-Arts structures in Manhattan, nor archived for the convenience of humankind ten thousand photographs of fingernail art. Then came the Internet, which operates twenty-four hours a day, boasts a trillion-plus pages, and breeds rabbit holes the way rabbits breed rabbits.